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DIVIDED KOREA. S. Korean democracy: How will unpredictable North respond?

From opposite sides of the felt-covered table, a North Korean general and an American admiral glare at each other. Next to the North Korean sits a Chinese general. A South Korean general sits by his American ally. The tableau is unchanged from 1953, when these combatants of the Korean war met here to sign a truce. A peace treaty has never been signed.

Today South Korea is undergoing what may be its most important political change since the Korean war - a peaceful transfer of power through free elections.

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As the democratic reforms take root, South Koreans must keep a wary eye on the unpredictable communist dictatorship in the North. Will the unrest that accompanied democratization provide opportunities for North Korean adventurism? Or will the democratic change open doors to reconciliation of the divided nation?

At the core of this frozen war lies a bitterly divided nation. In North Korea, the communist dictatorship of Kim Il Sung has held power since the end of World War II. Backed by an army of about 880,000 men, the sixth largest in the world, the North Korean regime has never relented in its vow to unify the country under its rule.

In the South, military-dominated authoritarian governments, backed by the United States, have ruled for most of the last three decades. While producing remarkable economic progress, they have often aborted movement towards fuller democracy on the grounds that it would undermine the nation's security.

North Korean propaganda eagerly reported the events of this past summer, when antigovernment protesters battled riot police in the streets of Seoul, South Korea's capital. The widespread movement brought the dramatic surrender of the military-backed government to demands for direct presidential elections and democratic reforms. The labor unrest which followed was further evidence, to the North, of the unraveling of a capitalist South dominated by foreign ``imperialists.''

The radical students who form a small but important part of South Korea's antigovernment movement, a senior Foreign Ministry official worries, have a ``tendency to support the North Korean ideological system. The radical fringe in the streets could trigger a major miscalculation by North Korea. They could take the demonstrations as support for their system, which is not the case.''

``When there is sufficient confusion in the South,'' warns a government security analyst, ``they could attack. It might not be a clear cut invasion, rather a form of civil war.'' The North Koreans, the analyst says, were close to such a move in 1980 when the South Korean Army was used to brutally suppress an antigovernment rebellion in the southwestern city of Kwangju.

``A Kwangju type situation in Seoul or on a large scale,'' he says, could lead the North to conclude it had an opportunity to act in the name of helping the South Korean people's revolt. Such fears are behind the constant government warnings against the ``leftist danger'' from within the country. Many government critics say such concerns are exaggerated and only an excuse for internal repression. There is no change, they say, in the fierce anticommunism of the South Korean population.

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While there is little evidence of sympathy for North Korean communism, there is a noticeable change in attitude among educated South Korean youth. They are skeptical of the government's propaganda and call for an open discussion of the issue of reunification.

``There is a generation gap between the postwar and the wartime generation,'' says a student leader at Seoul's prestigious Yonsei University. ``The generation before thinks that North Koreans are horrible communists. ... If we talk about unification, we only benefit North Korea. Our generation sympathizes with that a little, but we believe unification should be realized for the development of the nation and for an end to repression. Both peoples should have the same identity.''

Korean feelings about unification are often compared with those of Germans. But unlike the two Germanies, there are no family contacts, no economic and trade ties, no visits of officials on any level, not even exchanges of mail. Since the war there have been only two brief periods - in the early 1970s and in 1984-85 - of extensive contacts including exchanges of visits. Both times the North cut off the dialogue.

Government analysts say the North Koreans will only accept accommodation when forced to. The first breakthrough in 1972, they say, was mainly a North Korean response to the shocking decision of their main ally, China, to open ties with the US. They cite four major factors which will lead slowly, by the mid-1990s, to some form of coexistence:

The economic stagnation of the North compared to the booming double-digit economic growth of the South.

The succession crisis which could occur as Kim Il Sung tries to pass power to his son.

North Korea's growing international isolation, symbolized by its inability to stop the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

South Korea's gradual closing of the military imbalance with the North.

The South Korean government seeks to reproduce the pattern of the two Germanies. They favor a gradual process of contacts in areas like family visits, economic cooperation and trade, and cross recognition and simultaneous admission into the United Nations. The larger issue of political unification, they say, should be put off.

The North Koreans have consistently rejected this approach. Instead they have pushed for political-military talks first, particularly calling for the withdrawal of US troops as a first step. The North Koreans talk of setting up a ``confederation'' of the two governments.

South Korean presidential candidate and opposition leader Kim Dae Jung has spoken out most strongly on reunification and his views are considered closest to Korean youth. A democratic government, he argues, will be stronger and thus better able to deal with the North Korean threat. Such a government, he said in a recent interview, ``can get North Korea to give up its ambition to communize the Korean peninsula.''

He proposes a three-stage plan, the first broadly aimed at establishing peaceful coexistence, the second at economic and cultural exchanges, and the final at political reunification. The first two, he predicts, could be accomplished in the five-year term of the new president.

Mr. Kim has been criticized by the government and ruling party for being soft on the North Koreans. But, the Foreign Ministry official acknowledges, an opposition victory ``could present a significant opportunity'' for resumption of negotiations with North Korea.

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